Saturday, May 25, 2013

Dreamrunning: Why running changes your mind


Running is like dreaming under control.

We don’t ponder it much, but the crazy dreams we have when we sleep are the miracle of our minds processing the day. The reason we dream about things we care about is because that’s what we’re putting in our mind. I have done formal sleep research in the past, and I know there is much scientists still don’t know about dreams and sleep, but it’s fascinating, even with the bit we do know.

Someone asked me before my half marathon what I was going to THINK about for 13-plus miles as I ran.  I said something like “whatever comes to my mind, the day, what’s going on, things I’m planning or thinking about. Just whatever.”

This week I was out for a run, and it happened to be a trail run, which is more challenging than a road run because of the rocks and tree twigs. You have to look down more, concentrate harder. That means your mind is free to roam. Thoughts about something came and rolled around—I just let them do their work. And I realized that running is like dreaming—with one wonderful advantage: since you are conscious you can halt the ones you don’t like and extend the ones you do.

Running is a mental sport. Yes, your body needs fitness and endurance to sustain, but it’s your mind that finishes the race. Tuesday as I ran, I started seeing things that were similar to the way I would process a dream. And I liked it. It was then that I realized that getting lost in running is so psychologically beneficial for that very reason. It’s like getting the power of sleep twice. Most people don’t ponder dreams much unless they are into a religious or psychological aspects of their symbolism. But on a psychobiological level there isn’t anyone who would disagree that dreams are crucial to survival. REM sleep—Rapid Eye Movement—is the most important part of our night’s sleep activities. There is evidence of psychosis, of sickness, of many bad things, when people don’t experience REM sleep. It’s not necessary to remember our dreams, but it is necessary to have them. Now, biologically, running won’t substitute for sleep—though it may help wake you up a bit. But psychologically it will supplement your dreams. Things lingering in your preconscious will come to the surface as you run—even with music in the ear buds. You find yourself processing all sorts of things—they just roll around as you focus on your footfalls.

If you saw my half marathon pictures, you saw ear-to-ear happiness. I had a good deal of time to let my mind dream awake. I relived my running history that day. I remembered the first day at the gym, the first 5K, the next one, the way I started changing my life, the runs, the circumstances I was running over—the people who I couldn’t please, the people who hurt me, the circumstances that didn’t work out, the money, the lies, the broken words, the 7 mile run, the 8 mile run, the 9 mile run, the 10 mile run, the 19 degree runs, the snowy runs, the delight of seeing a plowed Tomahawk Parkway, the first time I ran a sub 11 minute mile with my slow body, the 5K with a time faster than I had ever run, the sacrifices of time and food, the commitment, the research, the energy, the days I went to work with running clothes under my work clothes, doing SuperGirl acts in the car to change and find new trails. All of it—6 months worth of work danced through my head. So many times I had to fight tears during the half—but not bad ones—tears of remembering and realizing I WON! Tears of victory. Tears that I had made it to this day, that I was running a half.

Running is dreaming, and running is living your dreams. That’s what I thought about for all those miles. About success. About hope. About overcoming my own soul to make it to that day.

And tonight I signed up for another one: Kansas City. Tonight I decided it’s time to go back where I started this journey and conquer the hills of the city. I will run where I accidentally walked mile once on a trip to the city. And I will run farther. And harder. And I will think, and I will dream.

And then I will wake up refreshed because the real restorative part of sleep goes beyond the sleep part—real restoration is in the dreams. And that's one reason why running is so important to me

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